Auto sales showed signs of stability in November, but the sluggish U.S. economy continued to weigh on car shoppers.
Overall vehicle sales were flat last month compared with November 2008. The 746,928 cars and light trucks sold in the United States amounted to just 139 more than the number sold in the same month last year, according to figures compiled by research firm Autodata Corp.
"It appears that the economy and auto sales have stabilized and the worst is behind us," said Ken Czubay, the U.S. sales chief for Ford Motor Co.
Among the major U.S. automakers, Ford saw sales slip fractionally last month from November 2008, and General Motors Co. saw year-over-year sales fall 1.5%, according to Autodata. Chrysler Group sales sank 25.5%.
Among the Big Three Japanese automakers, sales rose 2.6% at Toyota Motor Corp. and 20.8% at Nissan, a gain fueled in part by strong sales of Nissan's Altima sedan and Versa compact. Sales fell 2.9% at Honda Motor Co.
The results are not adjusted to account for a difference in the number of sales days. There were two fewer selling days last month than a year before.
Ford and GM had reported year-over-year sales gains in October, but the drops last month were much less severe than the double-digit declines the automakers were reporting a year earlier.
The automakers are struggling to emerge from their worst sales slump in decades. Since October 2007, monthly sales of new vehicles industrywide had notched only one year-over-year gain, and that was in August, when the government's cash-for-clunkers program fueled sales.
On an annual basis, November sales ran at a clip of 10.93 million cars and light trucks a year, according to Autodata. October sales ran at a 10.46-million-unit clip. Both were well below historical levels -- as recently as 2007, automakers sold 16 million cars and light trucks in the U.S. But it was a big improvement over September's pace of 9.22 million units sold a year.
The nation's continued high unemployment, 10.2% in October, remained a major concern. Gauges of consumer confidence have provided a mixed picture, as soaring stock prices and signs of a housing market hitting bottom have helped offset some of the negative effect of job losses.
"At this point, jobs and confidence are intertwined," said Emily Kolinski Morris, Ford's senior economist.
Ford and GM said they saw signs that the U.S. economy was improving, but they remained cautious in their outlook for sales.
Although GM's overall sales for November were down, sales of its core Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac brands were up compared with a year earlier. Altogether, GM sold 150,305 vehicles last month, according to Autodata.
Ford sold 118,215 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brand vehicles last month, according to Autodata, down fractionally from the 118,319 vehicles the automaker sold in November last year. Ford said it planned to increase North American vehicle production to 550,000 units in the first quarter of 2010, a 58% increase over the first quarter of 2009. The automaker said the increase was aimed at meeting current sales levels.
Toyota sold 133,700 vehicles in the U.S. last month. Honda sold 74,003 vehicles, Chrysler sold 63,560 and Nissan sold 56,288.
South Korea's Hyundai, a maker of low-priced autos, continued to score big gains, selling 28,045 vehicles -- a 46% year-over-year increase in sales.